Dubuque construction expo sparks students’ interest in trades careers

Alexis Stratton squinted as she looked through a builder’s level mounted on a tripod on Thursday morning. She carefully adjusted the level’s focus, then recorded the measurement indicated by the crosshairs in the instrument.

“Now, you would add the benchmark elevation to that to get your height of instrument,” said Matthew Konrardy, an instructor with Five Rivers Carpenters JATC training center, who was watching her closely.

Alexis, a sophomore at Dubuque Senior High School, performed a quick calculation, then showed her work to Konrardy.

“That’s exactly what I got,” he told her, and the two exchanged a high-five.

Stratton was one of more than 300 area high school students participating in the Construction Industry Career Expo, which continues today at Portzen Construction in Dubuque.

The event is sponsored by the Alliance for Construction Excellence, a committee of the Dubuque Area Labor-Management Council. Throughout the expo, students participate in hands-on activities in fields such as ironworking, bricklaying, sheet metal work, welding, electrical work and carpentry.

“We want them to be aware of the opportunities that exist in the construction industry,” said Kelly Cooper, executive director of the Dubuque Area Labor-Management Council. “We’re seeing a lot more students realizing that they don’t have to go to a four-year college to have a great career.”

She added that many of the businesses and labor unions represented at the expo were actively seeking apprenticeships, in which students can work in a paid position while receiving training in their chosen field.

Konrardy said he has worked with students at the expo for several years.

“I like that the kids get exposed to the trades and they see that there’s options out there that won’t give them student debt,” he said. “These are all very viable alternatives to college, any of these building trades.”

At another station, Paulson Electric Co. electrician Charlie Sisler showed students how to use a conduit bender to bend a length of pipe. Electricians must do this frequently, he said, as they run wiring along ceilings or walls and need to avoid obstacles like rafters.

“If you had to go around a corner or a post or something, you would use a piece of pipe exactly like this,” he told student Shawn Ludovissy, who had successfully bent his pipe into several right angles.

Shawn, a junior at Alternative Learning Center in Dubuque, said he is currently taking a woodworking class and attended the expo to learn about careers available in similar fields.

“This makes (a career in construction) more tempting, seeing all the pay you can get and how it can set you up for a future,” he said.

Also at the electricians’ station, students got the chance to wire a junction box to make a light switch work.

Zakyra Cobbins, a sophomore at Senior, smiled as she flipped her switch and the lightbulb shone brightly.

“I want to get the experience of doing new tasks, learning how to use certain methods and different tools,” she said of her reason for coming to the expo.

A few minutes later, Zakyra got the chance to use another, larger tool — a mini-excavator.

Brian Vaske, with Operating Engineers Local 234, supervised as she and her classmates took turns sitting in the cab of the machine and using its backhoe attachment to pick up a ball from a tee and drop it into a bucket.

As an operating engineer, Vaske told students, one’s workplace changes daily.

“Our job’s here today, Peosta tomorrow, Cascade the next day and maybe in Cedar Rapids in two weeks,” he said.

Alexis Stratton said that variety is, for her, one of the most enticing aspects of a career in construction.

“I like that there’s always something to do, and you’re not doing the same thing every day,” she said. “You’re always learning, and it’s not boring — there’s always some excitement to it.”